The Ocean State Oyster Festival: The Bivalves Are Back in Town

oyster2We live in a state that thrives on intimacy. The heart that beats through the people is one of inter-connectedness, and that is why this year’s first annual Ocean State Oyster Festival is going to be an event worth catching: It’s hosted by people who love Rhode Island; it will initiate relationships between the hands that feed and the mouths that eat; and it offers a new avenue for pride among those who live in the smallest-but-greatest state.

When I was introduced to Rhode Island, I was given the grand tour of its food staples: Del’s lemonade, coffee milk, Johnny’s Clam Cakes, stuffies, Iggy’s Doughboys and the infamous Rhode Island Weiner. Noticeably absent on the list, however, was the Rhode Island oyster. Is there such thing?

I sat down with Andy Cutler, strategic communications extraordinaire and one of the founding members of the festival, who explained their vision in one sentence: “What lobster is to Maine, we want oysters to be to Rhode Island.”

That’s a mighty tall order, but after only 30 minutes of listening to Cutler tell me about Rhode Island’s history with oyster farming and the people who are currently making it happen, I’m convinced this vision can be realized. Rhode Island used to be an oyster-harvesting mecca. Ships from New York would load up on these bad boys and return to the city, where oyster stands were as ubiquitous as present-day hot dog venders. In fact, it was like that all over: Rhode Island, Philly, New York City. But the Industrial Revolution took its toll, polluting the water, and with the help of a few hurricanes, oyster farming took a hit. Rhode Island went from having 21,000 farmable acres in 1910 to 200 acres today. But we are on the dawn of a resurgence. Demand is increasing and local farmers are doing a great job of putting their names on the map.

Rhode Island is fortunate because we have a selection of harvesting options thanks to our proximity to water. Not only can we produce a large quantity of oysters, we can also produce a great variety of oysters. Each site has different characteristics, and these affect the terroir of an oyster — the whole of the environment’s influence on their taste. Ponds verses moving water. Underwater trays verses floating trays (the latter of which Cutler describes as “pilates for an oyster” because it produces meatier, stronger oysters). Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Bar compares harvesting oysters to harvesting grapes, saying, “Oysters are like wines; how they’re grown will lend to their flavor, their texture.”

“It was hard work trying all those oysters …” Cutler jokes. He easily describes the differences between size and flavor from a handful of farms, and already I am jealous.

The genesis of The Ocean State Oyster Festival took place in the Magdalenae Room one night. Cutler, Don Nguyen and Frank Mullin saw this opportunity as a niche The Ocean State could fill, and they left with plans for hosting an oyster festival. “It really has been a labor of love,” Cutler says, having worked behind the scenes for months now. Whether natives of Rhode Island or transplants, all of the founders have a strong love for Rhode Island and want to see Rhode Island recognized for the great things it has to offer.

In addition, they’ve created partnerships with programs like Save The Bay, which has played an integral role in bringing oysters back. Ten percent of ticket sales will go toward a new program called “Explore the Bay” that would include a solar powered oyster-farming program for kids. Cutler and crew see the value of getting kids in the boats at a young age, because it only takes a spark of interest to create a lifelong passion.

The Ocean State Oyster Festival is capped at 2,000 people and will take place on the Providence River Walk (where the “Providence Flea” is held) on September 19. Tickets are reasonably priced (children under 12 are free), and include a half dozen oysters, a beer / glass of wine, live music, beautiful scenery and entertainment via a shucking contest. The best part, however, is the opportunity to meet the farmers. “You can’t be involved with oysters and not have it be a conversation,” Cutler explains.

Going out with the farmers to learn the ropes and see the effort that goes into it turned Cutler’s advocacy of buying local to a new level. “Eating oysters that you know were harvested an hour or two prior changes the way you look at the food you’re eating.”

I am excited to meet the farmers after hearing Cutler describe them. They seem like such kind people and deftly cool. They are proof that a rising tide raises all boats — the sense of camaraderie and respect they have for one another and their products continues to encourage greater expectations. And they are happy to talk about what they do, so be sure to ask the questions. Cutler confirms what I recently learned in Greece: “When you shake hands with the people who grow your food, you gain an appreciation not only for every bite you take, but for the people who are working for it.”

It’s all about the conversation and the connection. This is Rhode Island, after all.

Don and Oscar

Don and Oscar

Q&A with Oscar the Oyster 

Motif: Tell us a little about yourself.
Oscar: My name is Oscar, and I’m an 8-inch oyster from Westerly. Jeff Gardner (of Watch Hill Oysters) introduced Don Nguyen and me and, well, we bonded. Don gave me a new home and made me the festival’s mascot.

Motif: True or False: Oyster farming has been around for a while in RI?
Oscar: If you consider 1798 “a while,” then true. And shellfisheries were noted as early as 1643 by Roger Williams.

Motif: What should people know about oysters?
Oscar: Four-a-day keeps the doctors away! We’re packed full of protein and Omega-3s, and we’re rich in nutrients such as calcium, iron and zinc. We increase bone density, improve brain function and boost your immune system, among other things.

Motif: So, is that aphrodisiac thing true?
Oscar: Yes.

Motif: Great. Last question. Can we take a selfie at the festival?
Oscar: Absolutely! The shellfish selfie. The shelfie? Let’s do it.

9 responses to “The Ocean State Oyster Festival: The Bivalves Are Back in Town”

  1. How do we get tickets? And what time does it start?

  2. WHEN.. I SEE NO DATE MENTIONED! I'LL BE PLAYING CHAN'S IN WOONSOCKET ON OCT 17….WOULD LOVE TO GO…IF IT'S SOONER MAYBE I'LL COME SOONER!

  3. Please list ticket price and time it starts

  4. Otis Read says:

    Nice article although it didn't mention the town that hosted more oyster houses than any other town…… Warren

  5. Mark Binder says:

    The date you posted is wrong.
    It's September 19th.
    http://oysterfestri.com/

  6. It's from 12-5pm and tickets are $25

  7. That is the date that's listed :)

  8. It's 12-5pm on Sept 19th

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